Monday, June 15, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“SARTOR RESARTUS” by Thomas Carlyle (Written 1831; first published in serial form in Fraser’s Magazine 1833-34; published in book form 1836)
As you know from an earlier posting, I have a nodding acquaintance with Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), not only because he hailed from the same Lowland Scots town as did some of my ancestors; but because I’ve read his tub-thumping lectures On Heroes and Hero-Worship, and have read and dissected his The French Revolution . So I had a clear impression of the dogmatic Scot whose high-flown rhetoric often ran ahead of his rather dodgy social and political ideas.
Some months ago, friends invited us to “high tea” at a restaurant in Devonport. After we had enjoyed this experience, we left our friends and went our separate way. We found ourselves in the second-hand bookstall that now sits on Devonport wharf. A little fossicking revealed to me a book I had long meant to read – a broken-backed volume, printed in 1871, of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, cheap and apparently once part of a collected set of Carlyle’s works. (As yet unread by me, two others from the same set already sat on my shelves – Carlyle’s Past and Present and his Life of Schiller.) I handed over my $15. And then, of course, my conscience being what it is, I thought I should justify the expense of buying it by actually reading it.
So I did.
Have I, dear reader, annoyed you by my circumlocutory and prolix way of introducing this notice? If so, then you are clearly not the person to read Sartor Resartus, wherein Carlyle’s style is so circumlocutory and prolix that, in the immortal words of Al Jolson “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet! ”
Carlyle lived long enough to be regarded as a “sage” in the Victorian Age (86-years-old was then a very ripe age to die). So long, in fact, that we are apt to forget he began his literary career before Victoria was on the throne and before that Dickens chap had yet been heard of. Sartor Resartus (trans. The Tailor Re-tailored) was written in 1831, when Carlyle was 36 (and in the reign of William IV, if you must know). It is a work of literary dandyism, a sport, a freak, an exposition of a cloudy philosophy wherein the young author is often (in the words of a later Victorian statesman) inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity. How much verbal rodomontade one has to endure for the small kernel of philosophy. And yet, forsooth, how enjoyable many of the descriptive passages are, and the ones where a metaphor sets Carlyle galloping off at a tangent.
To give you the essentials, this eccentric book is sometimes described as a “novel”. It is no such thing, even though its characters are fictitious. Sartor Resartus, subtitled The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh, is a sustained dialogue between a (fictitious) German philosopher and a (fictitious) editor who is going through the philosopher’s papers and commenting upon them. The philosopher is one Diogenes Teufelsdrockh (trans. “Devil’s crap”) who resides in the city of Weissnichtwo (trans. “I don’t know where”) and who apparently has a certain Hofrath Heuschrecke (trans. “Councillor Grasshopper”) as his literary executor. So the very names tell you that this is not for real and is something of a game.
Across three books the editor interrogates, mocks and sometimes endorses what Teufelsdrockh has to say, often in a querulous and chivvying way.
Book One promises to set out for us Herr Professor Teufelsdrockh’s book on the “Spirit and Influence of Clothes”. Once the “editor” clears his throat (it takes him about four chapters to do so) we are given Teufelsdrockh’s belief that:
“Neither in tailoring nor in legislating does man proceed by mere Accident, but the hand is ever guided on by mysterious operations of the mind. In all his Modes, and habilatory endeavours, an Architectural Idea will be found lurking; his Body and the Cloth are the site and materials whereon and whereby his beautiful edifice, of a person, is to be built.” (Book 1, Chapter 5)
This could lead us to think that we are about to enter a treatise on how clothes reflect social norms; how they are the physical manifestation of ideas that have dominated various societies at different times in history. And there is indeed a little of this. One passage propounds that the decoration of the body (painting; tattoos), among primitive peoples, preceded the invention of clothing - meaning that clothing is a development of decoration and that therefore the prime purpose of clothing is to declare rank and status. Allied to this, there are passages on clothing as the creator of shame, and a lively tongue-in-cheek discussion about whether Herr Teufelsdrockh is an “Adamite” – that is, one who thinks we would be better off naked. Great ranting passages speak of clothes as “a botched mass of tailors’ and cobbler’s threads”, strange to our bodies (Book 1, Chapter 8) and discuss the clothes of different ages.
Yet an undercurrent warns us that, despite its declared theme, clothes per se are not really the motive of this volume.
At the end of Book One the “editor” receives six paper bags, filled with documents of Herr Teufelsdrockh’s life. These he now proceeds to sift and discuss.
So Book Two (far the easiest to read, because it has something like a narrative thread) proceeds to give us the biography of Herr Teufelsdrockh, as seen in Teufelsdrockh’s own jottings.
The “editor” often rebukes Teufelsdrockh for considering his commonplace youthful observations as the signs of a superior mind. He speculates that Teufelsdrockh did not do well at Law because he was too shy and not gregarious enough. Indeed the editor surmises that Teufelsdrockh’s whole “philosophy” of clothes comes from Teufelsdrockh’s shyness and his need for covering and protection. Teufelsdrockh, who was searching for some guiding principle in life, found the university he was attending mean, materialistic and sceptical. Says the editor, Teufelsdrockh “expectorated his antipedagogical spleen” (Book 2, Chapter 3) when writing of his university. Teufelsdrockh describes his university thus:
“Had you…walled in a square enclosure; furnished it with a small, ill-chosen Library; and then turned loose into it eleven-hundred Christian striplings, to tumble about as they listed, from three to seven years: certain persons, under the title of Professors, being stationed at the gates, to declare aloud that it was a University, and exact considerable admission-fees, - you had, not indeed in mechanical structure, yet in spirit and result, some imperfect resemblance of our High Seminary.” (Book 2, Chapter 3)
Teufelsdrockh seemed saved when he fell in love. There is over-the-top Romantic rhetoric about this. But his idealistic Romantic love is betrayed when the young woman elopes with an English friend. (Book 2, Chapter 6 is called “The Sorrows of Teufelsdrockh”, and clearly both references and parodies Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”). Off, therefore, Teufelsdrockh tramps on one of those wild adventures designed to drown great sorrows. Byron was familiar with writing this sort of thing, and Byron is specifically referenced in the text:
“Through all the quarters of the world he wanders, and apparently through all circles of society. If in any scene, perhaps difficult to fix geographically, he settles for a time and forms connexions, be sure he will snap them abruptly asunder.” (Book 2 Chapter 6)
Really, according to the “editor”, Teufelsdrockh’s youthful angst arises simply from his lack of Belief. He has yet to find his spiritual essence by the sort of ur-existentialism that will enable him to make a bold choice, look with a cold eye on his own emotional upheavals, and exercise his Will constructively. Teufelsdrockh comes to the conclusion that the maxim “Know thyself” should be replaced with “Know what thou canst work at” (Book 2, Chapter 7).
And what does Teufelsdrockh come to work at? A new philosophy of Transcendentalism, of course, which will enable society to have real and binding values, and which occupies most of Book Three. Teufelsdrockh asks “Call ye that a Society where there is no longer any Social Idea extant?” (Book 3, Chapter 5) and the “editor” shortly thereafter speaks of “the monster UTILITARIA”. Neither Liberalism nor Romanticism, both of which speak to the detached and self-interested ego, can provide a satisfying philosophy for a society to live by. But a chapter called “Symbols” (Book 3, Chapter 4 – probably the most lucid chapter in the book) suggests the way out. It argues that physical things – such as flags, crowns and battle standards – take on a greater meaning than their mere materiality, and thus embody the great ideas for which any society stands. So too with clothes. So, in this third book of Sartor Resartus, the argument ceases to be about literal clothing (as it was in Book One) and treats clothing as a metaphor for a new philosophy or “vesture” for humankind, arising out of the “cloth-webs” and “cob-webs” of dead philosophies that have ceased to give life to societies. The “editor” proclaims “Here, therefore, properly it is that the Philosophy of Clothes attains to Transcendentalism.” (Book 3, Chapter 8) and elaborates:
“art thou not too perhaps by this time made aware that all Symbols are properly Clothes; that all Forms whereby Spirit manifests itself to sense, whether outwardly or in the imagination, are Clothes; and thus not only the parchment Magna Charta…. But the Pomp and Authority of Law, the sacredness of Majesty, and all inferior Worships… are properly a Vesture and Raiment..?” (Book 3, Chapter 9)
Ostensibly about clothes, then, the whole aim of this book has really been to proclaim new guiding principles for society in the form of Transcendentalism. We must cast off the “vesture” of old Forms and put on the “vesture” of this new philosophy.
Have you understood my crude summary of Sartor Resartus?
Of course you haven’t, because it is complicated, illogical and filled with non-sequiturs. But I beg you to understand that I have made it far clearer than Carlyle ever does, one major point being that the philosophy of Transcendentalism is never clearly defined (if it ever could be). The reality is that Sartor Resartus, with its digressions and rhetoric and side-issues, is very hard to construct as a coherent argument. Note, for example, that I have not even mentioned the chapters in which Teufelsdrockh, abandoning his central theme, dissects the impact of church clothes, and waxes satirical over the clothes worn by Dandies in Britain.
Through the fog I can, however, discern some consistent ideas of Carlyle’s – ideas to which he returned in his other books. There is, for example, his awareness of the stratified nature of society, which allows him to express genuine sympathy for the most wretched of the Earth. [Apparently such sympathy, also expressed in passages of Carlyle’s The French Revolution, is most pronounced in his polemic Past and Present, which I have not read]. Thus:
“The proud Grandee still lingers in his perfumed saloons, or reposes within damask curtains; Wretchedness cowers into truckle beds, or shivers hunger-stricken into its lair of straw: in obscure cellars the Rouge-et-Noir languidly emits its voice-of-destiny to haggard hungry Villains; while Councillors of State sit plotting and playing their high chess-game, whereof the pawns are men”. ((Book 1, Chapter 3)
There is Carlyle’s tendency to enthrone the human Will as the major force in social transformation. Thus: “Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force” (Book 2 Chapter 9). Or “The true inexplicable God-revealing miracle lies in this, that I can stretch forth my hand… that I have free Force to clutch aught…” (Book 3, Chapter 8)
There is also Carlyle’s strong tendency to see unique and extraordinary individuals, charismatic and God-appointed, as the natural leaders of society – a tendency which would lead later commentators to regard Carlyle as a proto-Fascist.
Thus “Had we not known with what ‘little wisdom’ the world is governed; and how, in Germany as elsewhere, the ninety-and-nine Public Men can for the most part be but mute train-bearers to the hundredth?” ((Book 1, Chapter 3) Thus the invocation of “Hero-Worship” (so named) in Book 3, Chapter 7. Thus the assertion that “Not only was Thebes built by the music of an Orpheus, but without the music of some inspired Orpheus was no city ever built, no work that man glories in ever done.” (Book 3, Chapter 8).
And there is Carlyle’s early fear of, and contempt for, the mass media, which he sees as corrupting the tastes and desires of the masses. Teufelsdrockh says “The Journalists are now the true Kings and Clergy: henceforth Historians, unless they are fools, must write not of Bourbon dynasties and Tudors and Hapsburgs; but of Stamped Broad-Sheet Dynasties, and quite new successive Names, according as this or the other Able Editor, or Combination of Able Editors, gains the world’s ear.” (Book 1, Chapter 6)
This theme taken up again later in Sartor Resartus, when newspaper editors are described even more emphatically as the new priests.
I hope I have given you the taste of Sartor Resartus, even if I have botched the meaning somewhat. As I said near the beginning of this notice, this book is a “sport”, self-referential, playing with the narrative genre, crammed with in-jokes and literary-jokes, what with all those references to Goethe and Byron and other literary worthies (I haven’t even mentioned the pages where Carlyle takes apart Bulwer Lytton’s dandyish novel Pelham). Most obviously, it functions in the shadow of Tristram Shandy (there is a specific reference to Walter Shandy’s insistence on the importance of names at Book 2, Chapter 1). Tristram Shandy takes three volumes to reach its hero’s birth. Sartor Resartus takes three books to reach anything like a clear declaration of its main point. In this sense, they are both elaborate shaggy-dog stories. Both books are, of course, now a rebuke to those nitwits who think that self-referential, game-playing literature was invented by postmodernists.
One major game Carlyle plays is with his British readers. To begin with, Sartor Resartus seems pure mockery of Hegelian idealism and the high-flown German philosophy that would not appeal to a British reader. The “editor” is a solid British chap who appeals in a commonsensical way to other solid British chaps. But we are less than halfway through when we realize that this is a sophisticated form of seduction. Carlyle’s mask – his “editor” - is in fact weaning British readers off their insularity and introducing them to those very ideas he appears to reject. As he often synopsises “Teufelsdrockh’s” words rather than quoting them verbatim, he is presenting Hegelian idealism in a very British way. Which is exactly what Carlyle spent much of his literary career doing. The British reader is meant to laugh at the funny foreigner while taking the foreigner’s ideas on board.
At which point, weary of my own exposition, I am forced to ask myself how I rate Carlyle’s philosophy, when all the (often delightful) rhetoric is set to one side. It is easy to agree with him that (post-French Revolution) liberalism and romanticism privileged the individual ego and took away any sense of unified social purpose. Again, it is easy to agree that, in some sense, “religion” – a unifying bond, a core of essential agreed values – is necessary for the healthy functioning of any society. So his call for a new, renovating philosophy has a genuine appeal. So do the passages in which (like the Victorian he was to become) he speaks of the dignity of labour as practised by craftsmen. (Small wonder that years later Carlyle featured in that iconic Victorian painting on the dignity of labour, Ford Madox Brown’s Work). But much of what young Carlyle proposes seems the evasions of the middle class. The aristocracy and church no longer exercise the shaping power that they once had. But we can’t let these masses take over, can we? What we need are heroes for the masses to worship. So roll on the hero-worship of high-minded philosophers, educated in Hegel and with a cloudy philosophy to guide them. Roll on those great figures who will sort out all society’s problems without having to go through the messy process of democracy. Roll on… oh dear! Not only did the Fuhrerprinzip evolve from this lazy, evasive mode of thinking, but so did Marxism develop from Hegelianism. What a serpent’s egg.
With regard to the style of Sartor Resartus, it is part of its self-referential freakishness that Carlyle often attempts to forestall exactly our criticism, when the editor says of Teufelsdrockh:
“Or is the whole business one other of those whimsicalities and perverse inexplicabilities, whereby Herr Teufelsdrockh, meaning much or nothing, is pleased so often to play fast-and-loose with us?” (Book 2, Chapter10)
“Can it be hidden from the Editor that many a British Reader sits reading quite bewildered in head, and afflicted rather than instructed by the present work?” (Book 3, Chapter 9)
“How could a man, occasionally of keen insight, not without keen sense of propriety, who had real Thoughts to communicate, resolve to emit them in a shape bordering on the absurd?” (Book 3, Chapter 12)
But the fact that Carlyle attempts to anticipate obvious criticism does not make that criticism any less valid. And thoughts vaguely expressed are probably thoughts half-baked. I say this in full awareness that much of Sartor Resartus is great, self-indulgent fun, and in further awareness that it became the Bible to a whole generation of American Transcendentalists and to other literary connoisseurs as well. Poor dears.
Self-indulgent and perfectly maddening footnote: This is the sort of thing that I notice when I read such a literary-allusion-crammed book as Sartor Resartus. I note that Carlyle quotes the same phrase, from the young German Romantic who wrote under the pseudonym “Novalis”, that Joseph Conrad uses as epigraph to Lord Jim:
“It is certain, my Belief gains quite infinitely the moment I can convince another mind thereof.” (quoted Book 3, Chapter 2).
This is rendered in the epigraph of Lord Jim as “It is certain any conviction gains infinitely the moment another soul will believe it.”
Then, in Book 3 of Sartor Resartus, there are Carlyle’s reflections on the necessity for silence as a precondition for real creation:
“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are henceforth to rule.” (Book 3, Chapter 3)
I couldn’t help wondering if Yeats had been reading this before he wrote his “Long-Legged Fly” on a similar theme. I don’t know much about Yeats’ reading, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he appreciated Carlyle, who had a similar haughty, pseudo-“aristocratic” attitude to the lower orders, and a tendency to admire heroes, as Yeats himself had.
Good Lord! See how reading such a self-referential, in-joke-making “sport” of a book has corrupted me into making quite unnecessary literary comparisons.